‘Tis the Season to Be Altruistic


For me, the holiday season has always meant an opportunity to give thanks and give back. In this spirit, I’m pleased to share these thoughts with you:

Is there such a thing as “pure altruism?” It’s a more difficult question than it first appears to be.

“Altruism” is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”

Why do we volunteer? Is it out of altruism? Or do we do it for the “feel good” it gives us? Or for some other reason like guilt about our own good fortune?

To maximize the value of volunteer activities, it’s important to understand why folks volunteer. What excites them? What brings them back?

I haven’t done an exhaustive study on these issues, but that’s never stopped me from sharing my opinion J.

So, what follows are some of my reasons for volunteering:

  • Because it makes me feel good. Okay, so that’s certainly not pure altruism, but what’s wrong with doing something good because it also makes you feel good? Every Wednesday night, I drive to Southeast DC to mentor fifth grade boys from Wards 7 and 8, the most underserved wards in DC. I understand that their lives –and their chances for what we call success—are far different from mine or my kids. I believe it’s my duty to, for want of a better phrase, “give back.” My friend Susan might explain to me how it relates to dharma, but does it matter why I do it?
  • To provide me with a more informed sense of something beyond my own small world. For the last seven years I’ve been very involved with Team Red, White and Blue, a veterans’ service organization. I’ve seen firsthand the effects of military service, both positive and negative, on those who choose to serve. I’ve been regularly humbled by my interactions with these amazing Americans.
  • To pay tribute to my parents. My dad was a veteran, having served in WWII in the European Theater of Operations in both Italy and N. Africa. Hence, my involvement with Team Red, White and Blue. And, my mom was a 37-year cancer survivor, which is why I became a founding board member for Hope Connections for Cancer Support.
  • Because I got tired of hearing people complain about the direction of our country and not taking some kind of concrete step to address it. And, that’s why I joined the board of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters immediately after the 2016 election. In my view, damage to the environment is the single most existential threat we face today. Enough said.

Do any of these reasons resonate with you? Do you have others? Some people volunteer to help provide them with business contacts or leads. Is anything wrong with that? I hardly think so. Anything that allows you to help an organization that serves a disadvantaged group or a great cause is just fine.

Whatever the reason, this is a good time to volunteer; to donate time, money, or in-kind gifts; to partner your company with a charity; or just to practice “random acts of kindness.” (Of course, giving back needn’t be just a seasonal activity, but, hey, this is a good place to start.)

One word of caution. There are some questionable actors in the 501C3 world. My friend Marc Gunther does a great job of ferreting out good from bad in his Nonprofit Chronicles. You can subscribe here https://nonprofitchronicles.com/ to receive truly valuable information. Perhaps this will help you choose the best way for you to get involved.

Happy holidays, everyone!